From the Nashville Tennessean:

Mayor Bill Purcell said yesterday he will not seek a third term of office, ending months of speculation and creating a wide-open field for the August 2007 race for his successor.

The timing of Purcell’s decision not to seek re-election caught some of the city’s political guard by surprise. The announcement set off a flurry of political activity as prospective candidates and politicos flooded phone lines to determine its impact on their ambitions.

He said he made the decision earlier last week after talking to his wife, Debbie, and several close associates.

“I have a sense of what you can accomplish,” Purcell said. “I think two terms keeps (mayors) focused, keeps the people that work with them focused and gives them the reality and the belief that they must and can finish in those two terms.”

The timing is a surprise because Purcell’s second term still has 22 months left, but he said he can accomplish his goals in that period.

Purcell said he would seek to end any ambiguity about the number of terms a Nashville mayor can serve by proposing a charter amendment to limit the office to two terms. He also said he would seek an amendment to cut the Metro Council size in half to 20 members.

Both would require voter approval next year.

The issue of term limits for the mayor was a cloud hanging over a possible third-term bid for Purcell. He maintained yesterday that legally, Metro’s charter, essentially the city’s constitution, allows a mayor to serve three terms, although he acknowledged there is an ambiguity.

When voters adopted two-term limits in a 1994 referendum for all city officials except judges, the section added to the charter failed to remove the existing three-term limit for mayors. Thus, while it’s clear that Metro Council members are limited to two terms, the mayor’s limits are somewhat cloudy.

Lawyers on both sides of the question disagree, however. Purcell or any other mayor seeking a third term would face a political liability and possibly a legal challenge.

With his announcement yesterday, Purcell removes his own destiny from that debate and will carry a two-term-limit proposal to the Metro Charter Commission.

With approval from the commission and the Metro Council, the proposal would go to voters for a decision next year. A change in the size of the council would be made by the same process and timetable. Purcell also plans to introduce a charter proposal to make the city’s audit department independent from either the mayor’s office or the council. It currently is within the Metro Finance Department.

“The truth is 40 people is just a huge number, and I think the people of Nashville will be better served and be better represented if they have a more reasonable number who are more greatly accountable to them overall,” Purcell said.

Purcell, 51, made his announcement to a group of neighborhood activists and city officials gathered for a neighborhood conference. It was a backdrop that fit the image that Purcell, a politician who pays attention to detail, projected as the neighborhood mayor. The signature moment in his 1999 campaign was a television commercial with him sitting at a desk positioned on a front lawn.

A lawyer by trade, he started his political career in 1986 when he was elected to the state legislature. He served 10 years there, including three terms as House majority leader for the Democrats. He worked at the Vanderbilt Institute of Public Policy Studies before becoming mayor.

He would not rule out seeking elected office again, although when asked he said he would not seek the seat of outgoing Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, which is up for election next year.

Beyond that, Purcell, who always keeps his cards close to his chest, would not talk about his plans.

“I’m going to go out this afternoon and mow the lawn,” Purcell said. “It frankly has gotten a little high … And then tomorrow I’m going to go to church and the next day after that I’m going to go out there and work very hard to be mayor for the next two years. That’s a long time. That’s what I’m going to stay focused on.”

Purcell said he would continue to focus the city on education, public safety, parks and neighborhoods — all issues he has trumpeted during his first six years in the office. Yet, that agenda, which Purcell says can be completed, has also started to meet challenges.

While Purcell likes to underscore his commitment to education by pointing, as he did yesterday, to a city school budget of $397 million when he took office compared to this year’s $541 million, there are chinks in the armor.

His administration has had a second term stormier than the first, when he seemed almost effortless in his control of the political dynamics of the city.

He has publicly battled the school board in recent years. And the current Metro Council is regularly hostile to the mayor’s agenda, although most of that animosity so far has resulted in symbolic skirmishes over minor issues.

There are also increasing challenges in the city’s financial position. Purcell has pushed two significant property tax increases through, in 2001 and this June.

Last month, voters overwhelmingly rejected a sales tax referendum that would have raised millions in additional revenue for schools. The school system is stretched thin this year and looking at budget deficits in the years ahead without major cuts or new revenue.

After making his announcement yesterday, Purcell was upbeat about continuing his work over the next 22 months.

When asked what he hopes his legacy would be, he said:

“I hope that it’s during the time I became mayor a general agreement was established in this city about what was important and that we would never stop doing those things that made a city great.”